Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lao Sze Chuan

Before we get to the main topic of this posting, I have a couple of housekeeping notes to pass along. First, I discovered this past Saturday afternoon that the good people at Three Floyds Brewing Co. in Munster, IN not only continue to produce microbrews that put the majority of the civilized world to shame (I had the pleasure of sampling the Admiral Nelson Extra Special Bitter, the Topless Wytch Baltic Porter, and the Hell's Black Intelligenser Coffee Stout, all fantastic), but can also whip up a mean smoked lamb platter even while undergoing major renovations (the kitchen was completely closed - in its place, just a grill and a smoker operating under a tarp outside). Secondly, I made a return visit to Eleven City Diner (where I procured a nice chocolate milkshake on foodie walkabout last October) for lunch today and got to try the house smoked brisket sandwich (called the "Schwartzy" in obvious homage to the home of the most famous smoked brisket, Schwartz's Deli in Montreal), which was tremendously good (and saved me the airfare to Canada).

This brings me to tonight's headliner - Lao Sze Chuan in our fair city's Chinatown neighborhood on the near southwest side. Restauranteur Tony Hu is quickly becoming a well-known figure in the local culinary scene, having recently opened his 5th venture in Chinatown. Each of his places focuses on the cuisine of a distinct Chinese region (Szechuan, Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, and You Ju), with Lao Sze Chuan (LSC) being his first (open since 1998). I had heard many good things about LSC's offerings and have made woefully few trips to Chinatown during my long tenure as a Chicago resident, so Mrs. Hackknife and I finally decided to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Our foodie friends Phil and Karen V. kindly agreed to join us, making it a couples night out without the kiddies (not too late, though - daylight savings time was looming at 2 am, waiting to steal away an hour when the clocks moved forward).

I made a halfhearted attempt to get us a reservation a few weeks in advance, and by halfhearted, I mean that I spoke on the phone to a hostess who told me in broken English to call 20 minutes before our arrival to presumably get our names on the waiting list (at least, this is what I think she said). Anyway, a persistent busy signal prevented us from making further contact on our drive up, so we simply waited our turn outside the storefront along with the other anxious masses. After about 30 minutes of listening to the Chinese maitre 'd scream out waiting list names (his voice was possibly better suited for a cattle auction) and watching one instance where I swear he let a group of natives from the Fatherland in ahead of everyone else (they had a brief exchange in Mandarin and he slipped them a little pink paper with some scrawled characters - it was all very clandestine), we were seated just inside the main doorway.

Now, you may be aware that szechuan food has a reputation for being a little heavy on the spice - as a result, I think we were all a bit wary about what we might be getting from the kitchen. Our group decided to order a mix of dishes from the "spicy" and "non-spicy" options listed on the house special menu page (there were many more pages of available dishes, which we mostly ignored this time out) to hopefully cover a broad swath of LSC's best-known offerings. Our server first brought out a little plate of white cabbage spiked with red chilis (you can see it in the upper right corner of the photo at top). This dish was complimentary and was possibly intended to be a palate cleanser, although I would describe it more like a palate carpet bomber as it was stunningly spicy. While I waited for the feeling to return to my lips, I started to worry that perhaps we had gotten a little more than bargained for with respect to the heat, nervously glancing at other tables to see if anyone else has polished their cabbage off (some did, some didn't). Phil theorized that the staff used this plate as a spice benchmark for each table, watching to see who avoided it, then adjusting the heat content of the subsequent dishes accordingly. He may have been onto something as our other food items were all pretty tame in comparison (apparently, we failed the test).

I must give credit to Nick Kindelsperger of Serious Eats Chicago, who recommended 2 LSC dishes in an article he wrote back in January, both of which (Tony's three chili chicken and the string beans in a spicy black bean sauce) were unbelievably good. Many food bloggers have described the three chili chicken as being addictive and I can see why - try to imagine the endorphin rush from the best General Tso's crispy chicken that you've ever had and multiply it by 10. The fried chicken pieces were wonderfully crisp, not the least bit greasy, and were perfectly balanced between sweet and spicy. Our last dish from the spicy portion of the menu specials was a platter of what was described as twice cooked pork fat (with the word "fat" listed in parentheses - we never really figured out why). This one appeared to feature thin slices of fatty pork mixed with roasted peppers, mushrooms, and corn (it's the red, green, and brown pile featured in the lower right corner of the photo) and was the group's least favorite of everything we ate that night (still not bad, but not all that distinct from what the cheap Chinese take-out joint in your local strip mall is churning out).

As for the non-spicy dishes, we picked an amazing crispy shrimp in mayonnaise sauce (easily the best honey-type shrimp dish I've ever eaten at a Chinese place) and an equally impressive Szechuan smoked tea duck served on the bone with an addictive (there's that word again - are they mixing heroin into the MSG shaker back there?) dipping sauce. By the time we had picked apart the last piece of duck and swallowed down the final crispy nuggets of fried chicken/shrimp, the 4 of us took our fortune cookies and headed back south feeling mightily content and heartily smelling of wok oil. I'd say we were all pretty satisfied with the experience and can hardly wait to try another of the restaurants in the Tony Hu empire. I continue to feel this way even after waking up at 4:30 that night (it would have been 3:30 the previous night, but clock changing be damned, I had more pressing issues to endure) to rush to the bathroom, clutching a box of Immodium while pondering death on the toilet like Elvis. I don't know if it was the extra duck drumstick or the third helping of three chili chicken that put me over the edge, but I think my ever-weakening stomach is warning me not to mix microbrewed beer and spicy Chinese food on the same day again...

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